Nights and mornings across the river

Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006

Dear Patty,

Something about being all dressed up and the way the lights on the tables at the Purple Crackle made everybody look good and the maraschino cherry among the ice cubes made my first Shirley Temple the best drink I've ever had.

The Purple Crackle was Cape Girardeau's version of the Ritz, "21" and the Tropicana in one cavernous room. In the 1940s and 1950s, a few of the best big bands and dance bands touring the country entertained the diners and dancers at the Purple Crackle and the nearby Colony Club. The list included Woody Herman, Buddy Morrow, Sammy Kaye, Dick Jurgens and Guy Lombardo.

The special occasion for the Shirley Temple might have been somebody's birthday. Every bow-tied trip there seemed special. I was too young and naive to know that men were gambling in the back room or that the Chinese-American cuisine wasn't really exotic or that most of the big-band musicians in the spotlight on the stage also had day jobs.

The Purple Crackle wasn't even in Cape Girardeau but across the Mississippi River bridge in Illinois, which to me back then might as well have been a voyage to Peru. Later on I learned that East Cape Girardeau sometimes was a place of mysterious fires and gunfights and bartenders who were friendly to teenagers. They were all part of the fantasy.

Half a century ago at the Purple Crackle, men wore suits and women were in gowns. I doubt there was a dress code. You just knew.

Nostalgia for a place is as much a longing for what the place represented. The Purple Crackle once provided Cape Girardeau with a pleasurable night of music, dancing and dining. The illusion was not that people were having fun -- they were. The illusion was that nothing would change.

A trip to the Purple Crackle hasn't been a special occasion for more than 25 years. The big bands were phased out. My dad would blame rock 'n' roll. Fletcher, the most popular band in town at the time, played the Purple Crackle sometimes, their versions of Fleetwood Mac tunes mingling with the ghosts of "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust."

Because Illinois bars can close later than bars in Missouri, the elite supper club became the last chance for a drink or to find love that night. In jeans and T-shirts, we sat in the red banquettes left over from the days when the Purple Crackle was still swank and didn't smell like stale beer. We pretended this wasn't the place where people gathered to put off the end of the night. Next stop nowhere.

Those days the drinks didn't taste like anything at all.

In its most recent incarnations, the Purple Crackle was a disco and later a dance club that sometimes seemed to attract people who wanted to fight as much as dance.

The building is about to become home to a gentlemen's club, a euphemism that fools ladies not at all. Old men who can't and young men who've ditched Mary Ann for a night with Ginger will pay the considerable duty to get that close to a real live naked woman. She will be bathed in lights that make everybody look good.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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